Saturday, 9 November 2013

Mr Whicher and the Road Hill House mystery

Road Hill House, front view
It is midnight on the 30th of June, 1860, and all is quiet in the Kent family’s elegant house in Road, Wiltshire. The nine family members (Mr and Mrs Kent and their seven children), the nursemaid and two servants are all sleeping or preparing to go to bed. It is peaceful, but when the nursemaid wakes up in the morning and discovers that Francis ‘Saville’ Kent, the four year old son, is not in his mother’s room the peace ends abruptly. A search for the boy is quickly arranged and it is Thomas Benger, a farmer, who finds the little boy’s body in the servants’ privy. The boy has been the victim of an unimaginably gruesome murder, with his throat cut so deep that his little head almost falls off. Even worse, the guilty is surely to be one of the remaining eleven persons who stayed in the house that night – the door was namely bolted from the inside. As Jack Whicher, the most celebrated detective of his day, arrives at Road to track down the killer, the murder provokes national hysteria at the thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes – scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing (The Suspicions of Mr Whicher).

I find the Road Hill House case to be very fascinating. Not only because both the case and Mr Whicher himself have inspired numbers of authors afterwards, or that they have, in a way, “laid the foundation” of how we picture the typical detective and detective story today. It is also fascinating and interesting because of the public hysteria it caused in the 1860s and years to come after it. Even now, there are still people who speculate about the true purpose of the murder and who truly was involved in it.
Mr Jonathan 'Jack' Whicher

The Road Hill House mystery is special in so many different ways, and one of the main reasons for this is because of Mr Jonathan ‘Jack’ Whicher. Mr Whicher was described as “the prince of detectives” by one of his colleagues and he was one of the founding members of the first detective force in the English-speaking world (The Guardian). He was assigned to the case when local policemen were unsuccessful to find the killer, and only days after he arrived at Road Hill House he had developed a brilliant solution to the mystery. He shocked society by accusing the 16-year-old Constance Kent, daughter of Samuel Kent and half-sister to the victim, for the murder of her younger brother. Mr Whicher based these accusations on a missing nightdress. In my opinion, you have to be quite clever to come to this conclusion based on so vague evidence, and still be utterly convinced by it [this will be discussed further on]. One of the reasons why this caused public hysteria was because a working class detective accused a young lady of superior breeding. Mr Whicher did not only cause a public arouse, but he was also attacked by the press and the House of Commons for his ‘horrifying allegations’ (The Guardian).

This difference in class was used as a sub-plot by Wilkie Collins in his detective novel ‘The Moonstone’ (1868). Collins’s novel is similar to the case in other ways as well. He fashioned from it a template for detective fiction, but instead of a child-murder and bloodstains, he wrote about a jewel theft and splashes of paint (The Guardian). Very much like the Road Hill House case, there is an investigator in The Moonstone who strives to expose the secrets of the inhabitants of an English country house, and his task is to distinguish the innocent from the guilty. Collins also borrowed some details from the Road Hill House ‘story’, such as a sullied and missing nightdress; a laundry book that proves its loss; an incompetent local police officer; and a renowned detective summoned to the countryside from London.

Another author who found inspiration in the Road Hill House case, and in Mr Whicher, is Mary Elizabeth Braddon and her novel ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ (1862). The novel features some details which were present at Road Hill, such as a ‘wicked’ stepmother (a governess who married a gentleman), a brutal murder at an elegant country house, a body pushed into a well, and the fact that the novel’s characters are fascinated by detection and terrified of exposure. Mr Whicher is also “present” as the amateur detective Robert Audley.

Both ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ and ‘The Moonstone’ were among the most famous of the “sensation” or “enigma” novels of the 1860s, and they were what Henry James called “those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries that are at our own doors… the terrors of the cheerful country house, or the busy London lodgings”. Their secrets were exotic, but their settings were oh so familiar.

The living arrangement in the Kent’s family during Samuel Kent’s first marriage is also very similar to the novel ‘Jane Eyre’. Samuel was living with his (supposed to be) derange wife and with an increasingly favoured governess, and this triangle has spectacular parallels with Charlotte Bronte’s novel (which by the way was published long before the murder at Road Hill House even happened). 

Constance Kent (in 1874)
It’s clear that the case has been quite the inspirational source for plenty of authors, but let’s put them aside for now and let us go back to the case instead. Because of the national hysteria, it is obvious that the case was in the newspapers. Many people speculated, of course, over who might have done it and though it was clear that someone from within must be guilty, it was still hard to grasp. The nurse, Elizabeth Gough, was first accused of the murder by the local superintendent John Foley, but the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. Then when Mr Whicher took over the case, young Miss Constance Kent became the prime suspect (as previously mentioned). She denied that she had anything to do with the murder, and everybody turned against Mr Whicher and supported the Kent family instead. He still believed this hypothesis and he never gave it up. The case eventually closed, without officially finding the killer, and it is said that Mr Whicher said: “We will never know the truth until Miss Kent confesses”. And oh boy was he right… Five years after the murder of little Francis “Saville”, Constance walked into London’s Bow Street Magistrates Court, in the company of a priest, and confessed to the murder of her half-brother. She insisted that she acted “quite alone” and that it was not “out of jealousy”, but it is said that she later confessed to a friend that she did it out of hatred for her step-mother, ‘who had usurped her own mother, Mary Ann, in the Kent household’ (The Daily Mail). Mr Whicher also suspected that the brother, William Saville-Kent, was involved in the murder but no accusations were made. Constance Kent was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death by hanging, but was reprieved by Queen Victoria. She went on to spend 20 years in prison instead, before she was released in July 1885, at the age of 41. It was later known that Miss Kent sailed to Australia in 1886 – using the name Emily Kaye – where she worked as a nurse until her death in 1944.

So in the end, Mr Whicher’s suspicions about Miss Kent and the nightgown were proven true. I think it’s so impressive to come to the conclusion that she did it, based on a missing nightgown, the fact that she had been hiding clothes in that privy before and that she was physically strong (which is not much to go on). Based on the lack of evidence, one can understand why people thought that these accusations were very vague, so it’s amazing that Mr Whicher was right. He really is the true Sherlock Holmes, and it is sad that he did not get the acknowledgement he should have gotten while he was alive; that he is more famous now, after his death, for the inspiration he gave to the fictional detective, rather than the actual forensic skills he had as a detective. However, I am glad that people can still appreciate him now (even though they may not know it) through fiction, instead of leaving him and his brilliant mind behind - unknown - in the past.

If you want to know more about Road Hill House and Mr Whicher I can really recommend the book ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ by Kate Summerscale. It was released in 2008; it’s a number one bestseller and it has now been turned into a major ITV drama.


Summerscale, Kate (2008) The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, London: Bloomsbury

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